(Written for my friend, Asha, who is currently putting up a tough battle against fourth stage Cancer.)
[Image coutesy - beauco.com]
Asha is not keeping up well. Any of these days could be her last. Dressed in a yellow tee and petticoat, she is hardly able to hold her lean and tender body all by herself and rests it against the love of her life, her man, who sits beside her all day long, all night long, stroking her hair with caress, just like the way he must have done when they met the first time. The more his gentle fingers move through her hair, the more she cuddles herself in his lap. There are no words of exchange between them. No tears. No complaints. No parting hugs and kisses. Just a sense of deep love which they will hold for each other forever after, a feeling that even death will not let them part with.
It was exactly one year ago, in one of these monsoon months, that I first met Asha during our evening walks in residential apartment lawns. Young damsels and aging ladies matching each others’ stride with swift paces and connected to each other with one common perennial cause – “How the hell do I lose weight?” We’d hardly moved some fifty steps ahead when suddenly merciless rains hit us and creating a big hullabaloo, everyone began running around with double rate of knots to look for the nearest shelter. Except for four crazy women who had ditched their sports shoes, cell phones and wristwatches to look up right in the face of sky and taste the bountiful showers that had already begun soaking them from head to toe, torrentially. It was us! Drenched, dancing in rain and laughing at each other! That evening, the relentless downpours got four girls connected with the petrichor of friendship. Who knew that for one of them, this could be her last walk in the earthly rains?
A month later, Asha had begun complaining about her backache. On our walks, she would request us to bring our pace down so that she could match with our walking tempo. We kept cheering her up to take stock of her health by increasing nutrition supplements until one day she suddenly broke us the fearful news of carcinoma growing upon her in fourth stage.
Even before the news would sink in our minds, she’d invited us for a coffee over a karaoke night at her home. We were amazed! This is certainly not the way the big-C news is meant to be broken. Dipped in cappuccino froth? Humming a Bollywood song on microphone? Dancing along with her husband? Had this woman lost it completely? Or, is the entire family nuts?
Over the next few months, Asha proved she was indeed a little beyond nuts to be fighting the big battle with such bravery and stealth that it certainly fell beyond the forte of a human in flesh and blood. She was not just an ordinary warrior.
After every chemotherapy, she took a stroll at the beachside with her man, hand in hand, watching the sun set romantically behind frothy waters. With every strand of the hair she lost, she flaunted her latest stock of printed scarves and gave us hands-on tutorials on our much besotted requests on how to wear it Afro-style. At one point, she’d laughingly remarked why she ever wasted huge sum on re-bonding her hair when all it took was a shaved head and a silk scarf to make her look drop dead gorgeous? With every blood platelet that her body was giving away, she was spending meaningful time with her friends sitting beside the fountain pond in the green lawns, now that she could not walk much. A sanitizer, a mineral water bottle and a mobile is all she ever carried in the name of constant companions.
With every passing month that got her weaker, she was looking towards life with even more gratitude, love and admiration.
Time flew by. We kept meeting on and off.
And one day, I was told I must see Asha while it is still time.
I walk inside her immaculately done home. Her bedroom is lit dim. I take a look around and see every nook and corner decorated with artifacts and embellishments that must have been picked after a thousand deliberations of an expert aesthetic eye. The décor is free of clutter and completely sorted, just like how Asha has always been. Too much water retention has left her face and body swollen while she barely manages to see us through her puffed eyes. Her tender hands have several bruises of repeated blood transfusions that she undertakes every fourth day. Her salt and pepper hair has grown back after an ineffective Chemotherapy having been stopped in the middle of treatment. Medicines are no longer useful to her. Yet, there is a faint smile on her lips when she sees us. The smile that mocks the tyranny of poor death playing on her frailty, but not being able to conquer her free spirit!
Asha doesn’t talk much and prefers to rest in silence. There was a time she would find it ridiculous to keep giving unnecessary explanations to foolish visitors who came to sympathize with her or who made her feel weak by reminding what she’s going through. However, she’d still call for some of us. But today, she’s too weak to figure out who has come to see her. I wish she would jump off from her bed and ask me to pick up mic to sing her a karaoke song for her or insist me to write a long essay on her wild travelling experiences or take me to a tour of her terrace garden, every plant of which she has groomed like her little babies.
I wish, like always, she asks me how she looks so that I could tell her that earlier she looked just beautiful and now she even looks brave. She may appear pale and weak but her fighter’s spirit has put Oncologists who’ve given up on her to embarrassment. She may have to bear intense physical pain but she’s still a source of strength to everyone around her. Like a warrior in the dark, she resonates with her name’s true meaning – the ‘hope’ to live, love, dream, dare, inspire, and all with such bravery that puts even death to shame. If that is not a celebration of life, what is?
The night is deepening for those who are sure of their next morning. For the warriors who are putting up a fight all night long, this one moment is all they ever wanted. No one can stop them from making the most of it, not even the horror of an impending death. In the end, it’s not the years in life that counts but the life in years that does. A lesson Asha wants us to learn, a little hard way though.